By Joanna O’Leary
When Galveston native Michael Sam bravely self-identified as a gay man on the eve of being drafted by the St. Louis Rams, he facilitated the start of an important conversation regarding the acceptance of LGBT athletes in the National Football League. By being the first active player to publicly come out as gay, Sam set an important precedent for why and how professional sports teams should actively support gay athletes, as well as hopefully encourage other football players who are considering coming out of the closet and into the locker room.
As Houston prepares to host Super Bowl LI, we may look to Sam as proof that progress has been made in transforming the stereotypically hyper-masculine, and sometimes homophobic culture of professional football into something more inclusive and reflective of its fan base (many of whom wave the rainbow flag as well as The Terrible Towel). And while Sam no doubt deserves much credit for instigating such positive change, it would be remiss to fail to acknowledge other important agents in the evolution of the NFL’s relationship to the gay community. In many ways, these figures paved the way for this important moment in sports history in which, save some lone voices of discrimination and bigotry, a chorus of fans, coaches, league officials, and perhaps most importantly, other players lauded Sam’s honesty and affirmed his self-proclaimed desired status: a damn good professional football player who just happens to be gay.
As early (or late, depending on how you look at it) as the 1960s, acclaimed Washington Redskins’ coach Vince Lombardi was an early champion for not just the tolerance, but warm acceptance of gay football players in his organization. Some attribute his then preternatural sensitivity to the fact that Lombardi’s brother was gay; regardless of his motivations, Lombardi should be commended by matching his personal philosophy of acceptance with professional policy. In the course of his career, Lombardi coached at least three players who then or after the fact come out as gay and made it known he would not tolerate and, if necessary, terminate any person known to be harassing or discriminating against gay players. Lombardi also happily worked alongside other gay employees, most notably assistant general manager David Slattery and public relations director Joe Blair, both of whom have publicly noted that the famed coach judged by professional performance, not sexual orientation.
One of those gay players coached by Lombardi was David Kopay, who came out in 1975 after leaving the NFL. Kopay went on to serve as an ambassador for the Federation of Gay Games and most recently penned a heartwarming open letter with advice and praise for Michael Sam. The case of Kopay is heartening but bittersweet when contrasted with that of his fellow (also gay) teammate Jerry Smith. For more than a decade Smith help lead the Redskins to victory time after time via his remarkable prowess as a tight end; however, his legacy as a great gay player was not realized until his sexuality was disclosed following his death from AIDS in 1986.
Another notable contemporaneous pioneer in the battle for acceptance in the gridiron was offensive lineman Roy Simmons, who entered the league first with the New York Giants then, like Kopay and Smith, continuing on to play for the Washington Redskins, including during their appearance in the 1984 Super Bowl. In 1992, the now-retired Simmons came out on The Phil Donahue Show, thus becoming the first professional football player of color to identify as gay. Although Simmons suffered from substance-abuse issues (which he often publicly attributed to long-standing issues surrounding his struggles with his sexuality), he eventually successfully entered recovery and became a spokesperson for the LGBT community.
As football enthusiasts, mainstream media, and the general public are slowly becoming acquainted with the important contributions of these aforementioned figures, and more importantly, accepting of their status as gay, a slow but important ripple effect can be observed.
Roughly one year after Sam’s announcement, Edward “Chip” Sarafin, offensive lineman for Arizona State University and NFL hopeful, publicly came out in a 2014 interview conducted by Compete magazine. Sarafin, who in fact disclosed his sexuality to teammates months before the interview, is currently considered the first Division I football player to identify as gay.
Sarafin may be the first, perhaps, but is certainly not the last player to make such a disclosure. Historical momentum, coupled with continuing evidence that being gay and being a great footballer are not mutually exclusive, means that safe spaces for players, coaches, and staff in the National Football League will continue to emerge. In tandem with the proliferation of these pockets of acceptance, so too, we hope, would be increasing numbers of men and women within the football community at all levels—be it high school, college, and professional—stand comfortable and proud to be gay on the gridiron.